Interview with the late Richard Jeni: The Art of Making People Laugh

Richard Jeni (born April 14, 1957) died from a self-inflicted gun shot to the head on March 10, 2007. I have interviewed him in April of 2005 and was struck by something about him.  I couldn’t help but feel as if he was deeply depressed. When I listened to the recording of our conversation, however, there was nothing that he said that would have suggested that. It was merely a gut feeling – a strong one. When I found out about Jeni’s death, I still couldn’t help but be shocked. He isn’t the first person I’ve interviewed who is no longer with us. He isn’t even the youngest (filmmaker George Hickenlooper, at 47, was). But he is the only one whose death was self-inflicted.

E! Online had quoted a particular line from our interview where Jeni was asked why people in general were hooked on laughs. “It’s a way of blowing off steam, you know?” Jeni said. “People always talk about the fine line between comedy and tragedy, and the line exists because it’s a way to keep from crying.”

When we spoke, that line sounded like wisdom. When I heard of his death, it became reality.

Below, you will find the April 28, 2005 interview with Richard Jeni:


“People always talk about the fine line between comedy and tragedy and the line exists because it’s a way to keep from crying.”
–Richard Jeni

Richard Jeni (www.richardjeni.com) was voted by Comedy Central as one of the top 100 comedians of all time and has recently completed his fifth comedy hour – his third HBO Special.  Why?  Simple.  He’s funny.  Very funny, even.  And he has a track record of consistently delivering the punch-lines.

Jeni’s first real taste of success was in 1990 with his first Showtime Special “Richard Jeni: The Boy From New York City”. That show received three Cable ACE Awards nominations. From that point on, he rose through the ranks of ‘comedianship’ as a favorite guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and when Jay Leno took over, he  appeared on the show more than any other stand-up comic.

As his comedic chops continued to expand, so did the amount of his televised appearances and sold-out concert venues. In 1994, Jeni made his feature film debut co-starring as Jim Carrey’s best friend in the blockbuster hit, “The Mask”. He continued to appear in lead and supporting roles from then on. This year, he was even one of the writers behind Chris Rock’s jokes at the Academy Awards.

But this jaunt into the world of comedy was predetermined at an early age. The young Jeni worshipped his father who, in turn, seemed to worship comedy. Jeni’s early attempts at comedy stemmed from the desire to bond with his father. As a kid, when his father was away at work, Jeni would sneak out the comedy albums – enthralled with the world of comedy…

Katherine:      What was the first moment when you became interested in comedy and knew that you wanted to pursue it?

Richard:            Well I started with comedy in 1982 and I did an open mic night at a club in Brooklyn and my original interest in it was because of my father. My father was a big comedy fan and so as a kid I would always sort of imitate my father’s behavior. You know, whatever he liked I would like so that was the source of the original interest in comedy. Then finally, after fooling around with different jobs after I got out of college, I went on an open mic night in Brooklyn. The original idea was not really to become a comedian. It was one of those things when I thought that this would be some good story to tell later on in life about the time that I went on at this comedy club. But the guy who owned the place happened to be there that night, happened to see me and asked me to come back. The whole career was really a kind of a prank that got out of hand.

Katherine:      What was the first time like? Was it particularly intimidating or…?

Richard:            It was very, very, very, very scary because I didn’t come to comedy from some other show business background. You know, I wasn’t an actor… I was never even a snowflake in a school play or anything like that. So the first time I got on stage to do comedy was the first time I got on stage to do anything at all. And there’s nothing really that you compare it to. People always ask me, “Hey, I’m a young comedian starting out. What do you think I should do?” Like there’s some wisdom to impart or some key to the whole thing, and there really isn’t. You know, it’s like skydiving. You can talk about it forever and you can fold your parachute forever but sooner or later you have to jump out of the plane and nothing that you can do in preparation for that moment prepares you for what it’s like.

Katherine:      You decided to write and perform your own stand-up material versus just performing or just writing. Why?

Richard:            Well, having somebody else write it really isn’t an option. I think that probably 90% or more of the comedians that do comedy today write their own stuff because most comedy now is very kind of personal and anecdotal and very specific to the person doing it. I mean there are not too many people that do acts that are more in the old style of say a Dangerfield or Bob Hope or people who just spout out unrelated one-liners. Those types of things you can write. Those types of things have a formula that you can write but most of the comedians today, myself included, do an act that’s very personal and based on yourself and very specific to you… so it really isn’t an option, I think, to have somebody else write it for you.

Katherine:      Do you find it difficult to share these sorts of personal things in front of complete strangers?

Richard:            Well the ones that I share onstage, they’re actually up to the level of comfort that you can handle. I think that when I say personal I don’t mean necessarily burying your soul or making yourself overly vulnerable. I mean personal in a sense that everything in my act is something that I either have thought about or been through but they’re not necessarily things that are very difficult to talk about. They’re usually things that are everyday kind of experiences that other people have had and you articulate them in a way that basically has you reflecting other people’s experiences back to them through yours. So when I say personal, it’s not necessarily a therapeutic purging of my psyche or anything. It’s more personal in the sense that I’ve had direct experience with it.

Katherine:      What proportion of your act would have compilations of experiences of your own and then experiences of other people? What’s the division between what you have experienced and what other people have?

Richard:            Well, what I do is kind of start out with something that people can hopefully relate to on an emotional level. I don’t mean that you’re necessarily talking about child abuse or something horrible. I just mean something that involves their emotions: your father, your girlfriend, your wife, your husband – some sort of thing that they have an emotional connection to. And so in the sense that I’m talking about, I would say everything really is something that I have a personal connection to. I would say that a hundred percent of it is…

Katherine:      …But not all of it happened to you.

Richard:            No, but it’s just a question of… we’re getting into semantics a little bit. It has happened in the sense that I may not have had the direct experience…I mean I would say that there are things in my show that are specific anecdotes: “Hey I went to the airport and my plane had a fire on it and this was my reaction to it…” That specifically happened to me. But if I’m talking about politics or things in the news, I think that I’m talking about things that happened to me too. I’m expressing my own frustration or anger or amusement..

Katherine:      So when people ask you what you do for a living and you say that you’re a comedian do they take you seriously? What would their first reaction be? – And hopefully it’s not “tell us something funny.”

Richard:            Well unfortunately more and more their reaction tends to be, “Really? I have a cousin that does that.” Because there’s a good thing and a bad thing about comedy lately, depending on your viewpoint. There seems to be more and more of it. And shows like “Last Comic Standing” and Comedy Central doing stand up comedy contests have created the idea, not created but maybe finalized the idea, of comedy as a vocation.

Katherine:      Do you think it’s because currently we have so many different social and political issues and the public has become so cynical that they need to see news, issues and such be approached in a satirical way?

Richard:            No. No, I don’t. I think that there is never any shortage of comics for comedy, social, political, or otherwise. What’s caused this is basically technology.  What happened in television is the same thing as what happened in the magazine business. There became more and more outlets. A generation ago there were about three big magazines that everybody read—Life, Look and whatever the other one was. Now it’s diced and sliced to where there are magazines for every single personal taste that you could possibly have. And the same thing happened to TV. There are so many channels and there’s such a need for programming and stand up comedy is cheap programming, it comes already packaged.

Here’s the person that does it, it’s already written and there’s a lot of comedians dying for exposure so they’re able to put on things that are mildly entertaining for very little money. And depending on which side of the fence you’re on, it’s a good thing. If you’re a comedian who’s in dire need of some sort of television exposure this phenomenon is good for you. If you’re me who doesn’t necessarily need exposure as much as someone else does because I’ve had five HBO comedy hours and done dozens of talk shows, it just muddies the landscape.

Katherine:      And you can’t tell which is which?

Richard:            Well it’s harder and harder to. You know, now you need ten times the exposure on television to get the same impact as you would have fifteen years ago.

Katherine:      That’s true. But, I have a very good way of telling which comedian is which – the one that makes me laugh. But that’s rather obvious, isn’t it?  Now, I realize that if you told me you’d have to kill me, but how do you come up with new material? I imagine it would be pretty difficult to just sit down and write something funny…

Richard:            Yeah, it’s kind of like…well, I don’t want to use a bunch of clichés. It’s just like writing anything else. It’s honing. You know, very, very little of it comes out of me full blown. You just sort of have a notion and the notion could be anything. It could be a phrase that I just think is a funny phrase or it could be a provocative thought. It could be just a rhythm of a thing that sounds funny and then it’s a matter of finding out if the audience thinks it’s funny. And the only way to find that out is to do it. And as you do comedy more and more, your percentage of things that you try, the things that make the cut goes up, but it’s never a hundred percent or anything even close to that. It’s really still a fraction…

Katherine:      So do you just move from one venue to the next, trying jokes…?

Richard:            Yeah, exactly. And there’s no other way to do it. That’s it. And any comedian who knows what they’re talking about who wants to be honest about it would tell you the same thing. There’s absolutely no way to predict in advance with one hundred percent accuracy what audiences will like or not so it starts out with something that I think is worth saying and then it’s a matter of trying it out and honing it down. And sometimes an idea has legs and you can get lots more out of it. And sometimes you think that you have a whole long routine, but really all you have is one joke. And the only way to find that out is by continuously doing it over and over again.

Katherine:      Did you ever have a joke that you’re still convinced is funny and yet no one ever laughed?

Richard:            Well that’s a little like the tree falling in the forest, you know? If no one laughs at it, is it funny? There are certainly been things that I enjoyed that I thought were funny lines but I could not get the audience to laugh at. That has happened many times. I can’t think of a specific one, but there are other things that I never thought were that funny and the audience likes them so much that you’re kind of forced to keep doing them. And you know as a comedian, if you do this for a long time, you become a little desensitized in the things that you tend to like and this is true in any field I think.

The things you tend to like are a little more arcane or a little more esoteric than the general public likes. Basically you get over-stimulated comedically and you need weirder and weirder things to get you going. But as to what the audience likes, the audience doesn’t really make those distinctions for the most part. They just care if they’re laughing or not. They don’t care if it was an easy joke or a hard joke or a dirty joke. It’s kind of like porno, you know. The audience wants a bottom line result. If they’re watching porno they want to be titillated you know? They don’t care about a story for the most part and it’s the same thing with comedy.

Katherine:      I care about the story…

Richard:            Yeah, but that’s not the main reason though. You know, the overriding reason is that you want to be titillated and it’s the same thing with comedy. You know, people want to laugh. That’s what they want. They want a little vacation. They want laughter.

Katherine:      What are some of the reasons why people laugh or want laugh?

Richard:            Well there’s one main reason that people laugh in that it’s a coping mechanism. It’s a way of blowing off steam, you know? People always talk about the fine line between comedy and tragedy and the line exists because it’s a way to keep from crying.

Katherine:      You know, I’m probably one of the worst audiences for a comedian because even when I find jokes funny I never laugh. I don’t know why. Do you find that there are other people that sort of do enjoy the jokes, get them, but don’t laugh…

Richard:            Oh sure. Fortunately they’re the minority. Otherwise it would be a very difficult thing, to do comedy and to have an audience of people just sort of agreeing with you but not vocalizing it in some way…

Katherine:      Do you know why they are not vocalizing?

Richard:            Ah, no. I think you’d have to get yourself into a shrink to find that one out.

Katherine:      Yeah, I’m enrolling tomorrow in the Betty Ford Clinic.

Richard:            Good luck. Rehab is for quitters.

Katherine:      Oh Good. So what do you find are the sort of routines or jokes that people respond to most?

Richard:            Things that they relate to the most. For example: I do shows sometimes for corporations and you go in and are having a meeting at IBM or General Motors or whatever it happens to be and they’re looking to break the monotony so they’ll bring a comedian in and everybody does these types of jobs. Seinfeld does them, Cosby does them, Jay Leno does them, and it’s just an area of business that you don’t hear about much because it’s private. And what you find there, you find everywhere that you do comedy.

If you’re at an event say for computer people, and you make a joke that’s not technically a very good joke but it’s about their industry and their immediate concerns, that’s much funnier to them than a joke that is off topic about something else because there’s an immediate recognition and there’s an immediate identification on their part with that particular joke. So it doesn’t even have to be technically as good. Of all the things that you can do to make people laugh, the most powerful one is to be talking about something that has immediate relevance to their lives and their emotions.

Katherine:      As a comedian, what would you say is the most important thing to get out of the audience, get them thinking or get them laughing?

Richard:            Get them laughing. Thinking is a bonus. This is without a doubt a debatable point, but I come down on the side of there being an implied contact with the audience. If you’re being billed as a comedian and they’re coming to a “comedy show,” then if you’re not putting that part of what you’re doing first, to me in a sense you’re betraying these people and you’re also taking yourself too seriously. You know, if you’re trying to make them think more than you’re trying to make them laugh, then you’ve stopped being a comedian and you’ve started to become something else. And I don’t know what that is…a teacher, a philosopher, an instructor… and there’s nothing wrong with that…but it’s different.

Of course, the Holy Grail of comedy is to be able to make them laugh so hard that they’re holding their sides and also make them think about their lives and their place in the world. If you can do that, that’s the best thing that you can do. But most of the time, you wind up hurting one or the other. If you try too hard to just get a laugh at any expense, you wind up with an act that’s silly and thin and doesn’t stick to your ribs. And if you try too hard to make them think, you wind up not being funny. And ultimately the best thing you can do is do both. But you know to be honest with yourself you should, I think…and this is a matter of opinion…try to make them laugh first.

Katherine:      Why do you want to make people laugh in the first place?

Richard:            Well I think for the same reason that anybody does anything. You’re looking for acceptance. You want people to like you and that’s one of the ways you can do it. Especially if you do the type of show that I do because I don’t play a character. You know, I’m more or less myself on stage and so if the audience is hearing what I think, what I’ve done and who I am… to some extent – and their laughter, it’s a way of saying that’s OK. We’re OK with that. And that’s ultimately a way of them saying we accept you.

Katherine:      Do you also quip much in your everyday life?

Richard:            Not as much as people would think. For the same reason that a gynecologist probably comes home and says, “Not tonight honey, I’ve been looking at those things all day.” It’s kind of a similar thing to me. I need some time to refuel and reflect and frankly I find it very, very tiresome to be funny all of the time because you know being funny is…it should be a vacation, you know? It should be a spice. It shouldn’t be the course.

Katherine:      Is it a vacation for you when you’re doing it in front of an audience?

Richard:            It’s the satisfaction of a job well done is what it is. The actual time that I’m doing it you know…I think it might be akin to being a racecar driver. One wrong move and you can get into serious trouble. And that’s going to probably get in the way of completely abandoning and enjoying yourself. It’s really a mental type of job.

[But] when athlete is going to run or swim or do whatever he does…getting yourself completely psyched up emotionally would probably be a good thing to give you that extra boost of adrenaline. That doesn’t really work with comedy. You need to have your energy up high, but if you get it up too high you can blow right past what you’re trying to do and you can lose your sensitivity to the audience… I think it’s finding that right balance. So while I’m on, I’m never really conscious of “wow I’m having a really, really wonderful time.” The satisfaction comes after the job is done.

Katherine:      Do you regret, because you’ve been doing this for so many years, the “gynecologist complex,” if you will, that happened in your own life? …That you consider this a job and when you come home you want to relax and not necessarily make people laugh anymore?

Richard:            No. No, I don’t because I’m still a very easy laugh. I still enjoy watching comedy and I enjoy watching other comedians – if they’re good, they’re funny for that reason and if they’re bad they’re funny for a different reason to me. So I haven’t lost the ability at all to laugh and enjoy comedy. I just don’t see any need to be wisecracking all day long.

Katherine:      Earlier you were saying how you think that the way you are on stage and the way you are in your daily life is pretty much the same. I seem to get a slightly different impression, but I certainly don’t know you very well. So what I was curious to know is whether you had an image that you developed as a comedian, be it consciously, or subconsciously? I mean, there still is a difference between somebody who goes up on stage in front of a large audience and the way they are normally…

Richard:            The way I am onstage is me, but it’s a kind of pumped up, overly inflated version. It’s like me squared, which is probably good, you know. I think it would probably be pretty hard to take someone who is that blustery and overconfident in real life. And on stage you need that because an audience wants to be led. They want to feel like someone’s in control and you can’t be tentative about the things that you’re saying or doing when you’re up on a stage. You have to believe it. So that’s what I mean. I don’t mean that seeing me on the stage is the same as talking to me in person. I mean that it’s basically not me changing into a different character physically. It’s not me saying things that I don’t believe.

Katherine:      Right, it’s just a pumped up version of that. When you go on stage it seems very spontaneous… you must know the material inside out. How do you prepare?

Richard:            Again, you know, there’s only one way to do this and that’s by continuously doing it over and over and over again. And that’s the way to make it look spontaneous – practice it like crazy. The more times you do it, the better you know it and the more you can lose your self-consciousness about it. You’re not thinking about what you’re doing.

When you can really stop thinking about it and really trying to remember the words and trying to remember the inflections and trying to remember where it goes in the show, when it’s just planted in your subconscious, people won’t notice that it’s a show. And that’s kind of what stand up is in a way. It’s a form of entertainment where a big part of the reason why it works is it doesn’t look like it’s trying to entertain you. It should hopefully look like a person who just wandered into the theater and thought of these things on the way here.

Katherine:      He’s that good! Even in method acting, that’s the key to spontaneity – memorizing and knowing the lines so well, that you eventually forget that they are there and it becomes second nature. I was actually putting together an event some time ago and I wanted to have the host improvise on stage… He said, “Sure, I can be spontaneous but that has to be prewritten.”

Richard:            Yeah. Can you write me some spontaneous stuff?

Katherine:      Exactly! So I wrote some spontaneous stuff. What can ya do? Now, looking at your recent special on HBO – was that much different than doing standup routines in a joint where a certain amount of people had too much to drink?

Richard:            Ah, the difference is it’s way, way harder to do that show. And one of the reasons is that you just can’t get away with [much]. You know, there’s a certain amount of meandering and fooling around with an audience that works in a live situation that would be really dull on television. I think if you’re doing an HBO comedy hour there’s no room for stuff that is marginal. It’s gotta be really tight and really honed. When you’re in a live situation there’s lots of things you can do. You can pause, you can walk around, you can talk to people in the audience and you know that kind of stuff is OK for a couple of reasons. One, you know the people are there. You know, the people who are watching are kind of stuck with you. They’re in an audience in a live venue. They can’t just pick up and leave. And even if they wanted to pick up and leave, it involves some effort on their part.

When they’re watching television, it’s just a matter of clicking a button and they’re outta there so there’s not as much room to have the show slow down. Here’s another thing: This is the fifth comedy hour that I’ve done and it’s the third comedy hour that I’ve done for HBO so obviously you can’t do any of the material that you used to do. And you can in a nightclub. You know people…

Katherine:      …don’t remember all of it.

Richard:            Well, A) don’t remember it, and B) sometimes they came out for that reason. You know, HBO has been very, very, very wonderful to me but they’re not going to pony up you know large amounts of money for me to go out and do the same jokes I did on the last special so that’s another big challenge. It has to be new material and it has to be funny in a different way than the other material was. Otherwise people will say well, you know that was funny but he was just pretty much replacing the subject matter and the jokes. They were the same type of jokes and they were about the same level of funny and they were kind of delivered in the same context.

Katherine:      On that note: If you could be remembered by one routine what would it be?

Richard:            If I was going to be remembered by one routine…what would it be…I’m trying to think…of all of them. There’s hundreds of them. I think that if I HAD to pick one, I would pick the bit I do about a football referee who breaks down on national television and starts talking about his life instead of about the game. That particular routine has a lot of things that I enjoy in comedy because it has a point. It has some things to say about the human condition. It’s really funny. It has a physicality to it where you’re sort of laying down at one point walking around at another point and it has a lot of the elements that I like in a comedy bit. However, you know, if you ask me the same question five years from now hopefully I would be able to tell you that the bit is terrible and lame and stupid because…

Katherine:      …you’ve got a better one to replace it?

Richard:            Well, you tend to like stuff that you’re doing most recently the best. So my last HBO comedy hour, I’m very happy with it, but I think in five years from now I can look back at it and think what the hell was I thinking…

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One Response to Interview with the late Richard Jeni: The Art of Making People Laugh

  1. Whalen says:

    Do you also quip much in your everyday life?

    “Not as much as people would think. For the same reason that a gynecologist probably comes home and says, “Not tonight honey, I’ve been looking at those things all day.”

    Classic.

    VA:F [1.9.7_1111]
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